Unlike most of the folks in the marine industry, I got a late start. Actually, I never planned to be a marine dealer; it just kind of happened after I bought my first boat, a Yamaha SX230 jetboat, at the age of 46 in 2007.
The boating lifestyle had always been attractive, but I had never made the commitment to buy a boat, although it always looked like fun. Then one day I found myself drowning in self-pity because my son Caleb had left for college and my other son, Joshua, joined the Navy. Empty-nest syndrome was hitting me square in the face. To fill the void I felt, I opted to buy a puppy — and a boat.
With the boat came the joy of our first adventure for my girlfriend Chrystal and me. I chose Captiva because it had a large number of waterfront restaurants and places to stay that had a marina. In my mind, I was set. To ensure the success of the vacation, I started a list of locations I could visit by boat. I included GPS information, as well as descriptions and phone numbers.
Later I decided to make a simple Web page so I could access the information from anywhere. For most people, that's where the story would end. For me, it was the beginning of an obsession.
Once I got back home, I decided that I would add another city to my list, with more destinations. That trend continued for more than a year, and I ended up with floridabywater.com, which I started in 2009. Today the site has more than a half million unique visitors and lists 1,600 destinations, including hotels, marinas, campgrounds, restaurants, and even day trips — all accessible by boat! In 2010 the site received the “Flagler Award” for Best in Show from Visit Florida. To this day, Florida By Water is a hobby I take great pride in.
As time went on, I immersed myself in the industry by joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Marine Industries Association of Florida, the Jacksonville Marine Association and other boating organizations. I told you — obsessed.
Then three years ago, while having a few drinks with a friend, he joked that he needed to lose money the following year. This turned out to be a great partnership. He needed to lose money and I had become an expert at that! (All of the information on Florida By Water is provided free.)
I told him I knew of a boat rental company a few miles away that was for sale. We bought it in 2013 from Dock Holiday Boat Rentals, but we didn’t lose money. Boat Florida Rentals has actually done quite well, and we now have eight new rental boats, as well as kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and Yamaha WaveRunners.
The rental business did so well that in January of this year we decided to reach out to Crews “N” II Marine at Doctors Lake Marina to explore the possibility of renting space. As it turned out, the dealership had been struggling because of the recession and was unable to recover. The owner strongly urged that we take over the business. We decided to purchase it, and on March 1 we became the owners of what we renamed Jacksonville Marine.
I don't claim to be a clever businessman or terribly financially savvy. I can say I love boating — if I only had the time to go!
Rusty Gardner is the owner of BoatFlorida.com, FloridaByWater.com, Boat Florida Rentals and Jacksonville Marine.